The Zergling Rush (of your dreams)

Recently I fell into a discussion of the Rebellion of Boudicca (AD 60-61, see Tacitus) - a time and a place where trained and disciplined (Roman) legions triumphed over the horde (Britons). In this day and in our culture one can’t help but to reach to Starcraft’s Zergling Rush for edgy (albeit simplistic) analogies.  The trouble with zergs is that while long among us in MMOs, their new presence is filled with energy and insufficient cunning…

The urban dictionary describes the general form of zerging thusly:

1. zerging n. Using massive amounts of weak, or generic units, to attack an enemy…

In the early days, Richard noted, “zerging” was called many things including “flooding” and “rushing.”  More recently, zerg culture has bootstrapped itself into more elaborate social connotations, e.g. “Uberguilds” and the shifting alliances that underlie large  PvP worlds.  Though organization  implies protocols and norms, to date these systems in our worlds seem less Roman in discipline and more Briton with a fullness of tribal bluster and dance. The Wikipedia suggests these textured nuances of zergs, here:

...analogous to the human wave attack in real-world ground warfare, in which overwhelming numbers of troops are sent at the enemy. Zerging in MMORPGs carries the connotation of a disorganized attack that relies upon superior numbers and levels to win. It is analogous to the Zergling Rush from Starcraft. A body of players or army involved in a zerg is collectively referred to as a "zerg", while a player who participates in zerging (is part of the zerg) is often called a Zergling…

To the casual observer, zerging may seem  a form of virtualized hooliganism. Yet, it might also be seen as a natural consequence of the (arguable) first strategy (above all others) of good gamers: test the boundaries of your world, its rules, discover its patterns, and then pwn! them. Zergs, by instinct, try to stretch the concept of the group to its natural conclusion: bigger is badder, and badder is a safer griffon upon from to throttle loot from poor souls. Besides, very large zergs have an epic feel… or at least a colorful spread of color and character – as far as they eye can see - between the lagged screen refreshes, that is.

The risk of zergs is that at times, in some places, they push boundaries. Push too far they may seem exploitive:

A: Exploitation is defined as abusing a weakness or anomaly in the game system… with the intention of profiting from them in some manner.

But all games, in the end, demand that players push their world to see what drops out, to learn the technique and the wily ways of the place they are transiting. Then they ask players to efficiently execute on what they have learned. That’s entertainment. In fact, one might argue that the hallmark of a good gamer, as compared to a non-gamer who games, might be stated thusly: the gamer knows how to efficiently approach and parse a new world, where the non-gamer doesn’t. Part of that process involves knowing where to push.

Zerging can be an act of pushing that generates new excitement for its participants. However, not all content created through pushing is benign – MMORPGs are systems balanced between competing forces: players, technical constraints, game design, social habits.  En masse zerg performances introduce stresses that tip the balance. Just as real world soccer matches aren’t designed with siege-craft in mind, nor are PvE or PvP sub-games typically designed to handle swarming attacks. A good example of this is that the meaning of zerg is often characterized not by absolute numbers, but by the differential between the encounter design and the numbers of players participating (from here):

In general, any army that is perceived as "too big" for the challenge it is undertaking can be called a zerg. Instance zerging is a very common tactic in World of Warcraft, wherein 10 players will clear out a 5 man instance dungeon… a 10 man group can complete the dungeon and obtain good loot very easily… Despite its effectiveness, zerging is generally considered unsporting...

The critical subtlety here, is that, a zerg is relative to the design of that place in the world.

Interestingly in  StarCraft, “going zerg” is a strategic choice – a calculated option. It embodies well defined “moves” and well analyzed trade-offs, milestones,  metrics (e.g. from Raptor, June 2004):

The Hydra-Lurk is considered “new school,” even though it has been around since the earliest days of Broodwars. However, the reason it is called “new school” is because it is the most recent in a world of Zerg strategical theory. Many Zerg players have wondered “Is it possible to beat the infamous Muta-Ling strategy without going Muta-Ling yourself… And this is where the Hydra-Lurk came in…In theory, the Hydra-Lurk should be superb…Starcraft is really like a game of chess. In the beginning, each player has a few builds or “opening” memorized, and they will react to each other in a way that will ultimately determine the course of the rest of the game. In the mid game, the actual action and battles take place as each player jockeys for a better position and attempts to maximize force advantages in preperation for the end game. In the end game… a player will try and use what he has left for a final drive against his enemy. If someone is at an obvious disadvantage, he will try and turtle to the best of his ability to try and force a “stalemate.”

This StarCraft experience is in contrast to that of the MMORPG, where zergs have taken on a quality of a sloppy and disorganized melodrama - and potential frittered away.  Below are July 2004 forum comments on DAOC on this point:

…the experience in RvR certainly has taken on a different feel - the lay of the land is much more strategic, with choke points etc. It offers a lot of opportunity for tactics and strategy. However, generally the only people who get to do that are the leaders of the Zerg. Which is where the game has headed - if you're not in a Zerg, by and large, you're out of luck. The game has gone from 90% Gank Group vs Gank Group to about 10%, with the rest taken up by Zergs and Keep Taking.

In MMORPGs, zergs often connote overwhelming numbers and a pointless (or worse) experience for the many… not unlike the Boudicca Rebellion.

The downside of large-scale PvP zerging in MMORPGs is that as a play style it

A.) discourages casual play
B.) stresses other world design elements
C.) is unbalanced

With respect to (A.), casual players seem to find it more difficult to integrate themselves within the Uberguild networks that frame large zergs. Beyond structural barriers such as level and character requirements – organization and participation overheads associated with these events can be daunting to occasional players.  With respect to (B.) large zergs establish a play style that doesn’t integrate well with  the world design (nor, arguably, with its technical foundations).  For example, witness the development of dedicated RvR and Raid zones and promised “zerg instances,”  these suggest the need to  isolate the zerg outlet from the rest of the machinery of the world.

Finally,  it is (C.) that  feels to be the most troublesome component of zergs. Simply stated, most players don’t like playing bit parts in an epic drama. E.g., this example with capturing and holding castle keeps in DAOC:

But - I'm sorry to say - Keep taking is pretty dull for me at least - once you've taken a few towers and a keep with a decent-sized Zerg - bleh! Plus - this has made playing a melee character pretty tough in the game - if you're not a stealther/ranged caster you're out of luck. You spend a lot of time defending keeps and you get to twiddle your thumbs if you're a melee person.

Players want to feel important, some occasionally may even want to feel heroic.  Regardless of the nuance,  play and fun is ultimately measured in terms of the individual. So far MMORPGs have more or less have extended this play experience successfully to small groups, though not without controversy (content rationing, why only the primitive Tanker-Nuker-Mezzer-Healer group template?). Online games (esp. arena games) have done well to extend team sizes, though arguably they bump hard against the limits on player sophistication and interest in team-work.

True, many worlds function well with occasional large events such as raids and GM events, etc.. Even there, however, zergs as a play staple (vs. an occasional expression of the madness of crowds) is dubious: they are fickle experiences built of “some great moments but long half hours  (ref. Wagner).”

Designing worlds around zergs may be inherently unbalancing to the remainder of our worlds – as least as we, the industry, the players, has conceptualized of how these worlds should work now.  Looking back to StarCraft we may see this tension by analogy (Tom Cadwell):

Player-Time Imbalances…Although the Zerg race units are more or less balanced by cost compared to other races, they are much easier to produce and use in terms of player time. In large part due to this characteristic, the Zerg race was the dominant race in tournaments and competitions for roughly 6 months following Starcraft's release.

There is at least one vision (among many) about the vast and future zerg in MMORPGs: more AI cloaked by the ghost of StarCraft-  a place where players are leaders and the AI plays the cunningly wicked red-shirts: no poor sod need apply to play the fodder Hydralisks.  A world where  at the end of each day, a player, some player may ask:

King Henry V: I tell thee truly, herald, I know not if the day be ours or no.
Montjoy: The day is yours.


Comments on The Zergling Rush (of your dreams):

Richard Bartle says:

Thinking about it, we also used to call them "swarms" in the olde days.

In real life, zerging isn't a great tactic: you only have to watch the movie Zulu to see why. In real combat, people are either alive, wounded or dead. If they're wounded or dead, they can't zerg; if they're wounded or alive, they can defend themselves against a zerging attack. If they have vastly superior technology or a very strong defensive position, you have to break them by siege (or go round them, which is what the Zulus eventually did).

In virtual worlds, there's no "wounded", or "dead", come to that. Mobiles can be chipped away at in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts fashion until they eventually succumb. Players whose characters are killed just step up with their next piece of cannon fodder (which could conceivably be the one that was just killed).

Zerging isn't all bad; it can be good for community, for example. On the whole, though, it's akin to "steaming" - the tactic of getting a gang of 50 youths together and committing mass robbery on all in a narrow area (eg. a train). The group is strong, but the individuals, through accepting that they have to be members of the group, are admitting to themselves that they are weak. This can be depressing in a game-like world built for achievement.

Richard

PS: Camulodunum, which Boudicca razed, is modern-day Colchester, just outside of which I live. So completely did Boudicca do her job that wherever you dig in central Colchester, there's a thin layer of ash at a certain level that corresponds with Boudicca's burning the place to the ground. We have a really good modern statue of her, but I can't find a photo of it online so I'll have to go take one myself...

Posted May 16, 2005 7:44:13 AM | link

Stephen Routledge says:

"A.) discourages casual play

With respect to (A.), casual players seem to find it more difficult to integrate themselves within the Uberguild networks that frame large zergs."

I'm not completely sure you have this the right way around. Most uberguilds look down on zerging as a strategy and disdain the practice. In fact it is a common insult to say that a guild beat the encounter by zerging. If zerging takes place then it is usually as a last resort and not something to be proud of.

In contrast most of the zergs you talk about tend to be made up primarily of casual gamers who have neither the individual power, the organisation or the large amounts of practice time necessary to successfully achieve the objective in some other way.

Posted May 16, 2005 11:29:08 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Nice essay, Nathan.

Some comments:

1. Gamers (broadly speaking) don't just like the tactic of zerging because it's effective -- they like it because it's easy. Applying mental effort to gathering intelligence, developing an operational plan based on that intel, and employing tactical knowledge and experience to implement that plan is, like, work. Simply swarming an opponent gets justified as more game-like. ("Having to do all that stuff isn't fun -- let's just go get 'em!")

2. Although superior Roman organization won in the end, Boudicca's forces surprised the Romans early on with the damage they did. Zerging's not successful merely because it's easy; its localized application of intense (if incoherent) force can make it operationally effective. Althrough strategically organized, the D-Day invasion of Normandy was a kind of tactical zerging of the entrenched Nazi forces -- hit 'em everywhere and overwhelm them to establish a beachhead. Not pretty, but effective.

3. Once roused, the Romans defeated Boudicca with relative ease. They then went on to defeat most of the Celts in southern Britain and hold the Picts in the north to a stalemate. What lessons can be found here for MMOGs and zerging?

Lesson One: Defense may be stronger than offense. Until cannons became effective, the best defense -- the keep/castle -- was so much stronger than the best offense -- the siege -- that the entire social structure of Western civilization was organized around the fact that a baron in his keep could thumb his nose at a king. Charlemagne's attempted centralization of power failed (in part) for this reason. So depending on how a MMOG defines the power of defensive structures, players may be able to, if not defeat a zerg attack, at least withstand it.

Lesson Two: Order may trump Chaos. After Boudicca's initial attacks, the Romans defeated her because their forces were organized while hers were not. The incoherent force of the Celtic charge broke against the disciplined Roman shield wall. A MMOG that provides in-game tactical benefits for groups could provide balance against zerging -- a small but organized group of players could hope to withstand a large mob of individuals in tactical-level battles. SWG's Squad Leader profession is (in theory, anyway) an example of how to provide in-game abilities that balance an organized group against a larger group of unorganized individuals.

Lesson Three: A large-scale struggle for dominance is rarely decided entirely by an individual battle -- strategy matters, too. The Romans occupying southeastern Britain lost some battles but still conquered because they were capable of thinking and acting strategically. They strategically applied their logistic advantages across time and space, multiplying the effect of every victory. When they lost these strategic capabilities, they lost Britain. In a MMOG, giving players strategic capabilities could allow skilled players to offset tactical losses due to zerging -- the larger group could survive even if some units or positions are lost. A group that relies on zerging without strategic organization might find itself winning battles but still losing the war.

I'd like to see a MMOG that was *consciously* designed to provide benefits not just to intelligent tactical-level gameplay, but to good operational and strategic level play as well. I suspect such a game would minimize zerging without needing to disallow it.

--Flatfingers

Posted May 16, 2005 1:04:22 PM | link

Evangolis says:

I'd dispute that Uberguildds don't use the zerg; my personal experience is that they commonly do. Indeed, it is hard to avoid calling on allies when attacked. Also driving this is the urge to sign on with the likely winner. The alternative to becoming a zerg is for an uberguild to throttle access to the guild for new players, which tends to create a world of haves and have nots.

One possible solution to zergs might be to limit PvP to accounts or characters who have not died in some given length of time. This would give players respite from overwhelming force, in that they could still PvE, while also allowing the other side to gain a local dominance.

One possible problem with this death created PvP immunity and the ghosts discussed here as well is that these then become unkillable scouts, who can report back their guild mates with impunity.

Posted May 16, 2005 4:24:13 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

"
Stephen>
Most uberguilds look down on zerging as a strategy and disdain the practice

Flatfingers>
Gamers (broadly speaking) don't just like the tactic of zerging because it's effective -- they like it because it's easy

Evangolis> I'd dispute that Uberguildds don't use the zerg..."


In an odd way, perhaps a strand of thought from last year may apply (mentioned a number of places, e.g. this thread, also briefly in my OP presentation, etc.) about a claim that there exists a strange and symbiotic relationship between players and AI have in MMORPGs- after a while the latter begins to ape the former. It may be the case that zerging, in some of its aspects, is but one example.

Posted May 17, 2005 3:45:30 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Irrelevant, I know, but I put a picture of Colchester's Boudicca statue in my personal blog because I like it so much.

Richard

Posted May 17, 2005 11:08:24 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Nathan Combs> [it is claimed that] there exists a strange and symbiotic relationship between players and AI have in MMORPGs- after a while the latter begins to ape the former.

I'm confused:

The AI in MMORPGs starts to resemble player behavior?

Or the other way around?

--Flatfingers

Posted May 17, 2005 1:37:59 PM | link

Mike says:

A pretty good description of Boadicea's campaign and the Roman response may be found in Michael Wood's "In Searech of the Dark Ages". Wood likens the Briton force to a mob, which fits with your "hooliganism". He outlines the organized Roman response to such an attack and shows how Boadicea failed. Organization will usually defeat a mob -- unless the numbers are truly overwhelming. The Iran-Iraq War saw waves of young martyrs flung at prepared positions with predictable results. The Peasants' Revolt had a few successes but collapsed in the face of second-rate organization. Games don't reflect this aspect of real life? Then perhaps the game design is flawed; perhaps it is too easy in those games to gather a huge mob. For medieval games in particular, the reality is that you have a small population to work with.

Posted May 17, 2005 6:10:34 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

FlatFingers> "The AI in MMORPGs starts to resemble player behavior? Or the other way around?"

Yes - the question though is which party does most of the moving. Do we dumb ourselves down to greet the AI (say in pursuit of mastering process and "playflow efficiency" ala Theory of Fun). Or is it NPC enlightenment: the AI stands to shake our hand and we have a real conversation, and hell with the loot.

Will we become the Zergling. Or will the Zergling become us?


Posted May 17, 2005 7:55:57 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

Mike>
"perhaps it is too easy in those games to gather a huge mob"

Archer Jones (The Art of War in the Western World) describes a tipping point at about 200-300 years ago. Prior to this point the "force" to "space" ratio was very low - meaning that in relative terms combat tended to be between small armies capable of maneuvering in very large areas. After that point - force (and force projection) reversed this.

An interesting thought is this. If MMOs simply had more space - how would this affect the zerg dynamic?

Posted May 17, 2005 8:06:26 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

> If MMOs simply had more space - how would this affect the zerg dynamic?

The effects of an increase in space would probably depend on the game world's mobility/transportation technology (and, to a lesser degree, on one's ability to gather intelligence on the positions and sizes of opposing forces).

If space is large but there's no way to move quickly through it, that would be analogous to the situation of 200-300 years ago, and would presumably generate similar kinds of formation warfare (assuming you could field that many participants). Zerging would be more effective if done well (since it would be harder to move your units to counter a zerg army), but would be harder to do well (command/control/supply issues).

Of course, there's the social element -- players in such a world would probably howl, "It takes too long to get anywhere!" and demand to be able to teleport or some such thing....

I'd be interested to hear what others think about the suggestion of dramatically expanding the "space" of MMOGs.

--Flatfingers

Posted May 18, 2005 9:56:53 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Flatfingers>I'd be interested to hear what others think about the suggestion of dramatically expanding the "space" of MMOGs.

Is this with or without expanding the number of characters per instance?

Richard

Posted May 18, 2005 10:08:31 AM | link

XP says:

Combat rules in an MMO do not reflect the benefits of organization. Being inspired by RPGs, they are by and large, skirmish rules.

If you look at wargames, skirmish rules don't put much of a premium on coordination, cohesion and the like. You'll find that in rules that deal with larger engagements.

Beyond that, much of the dynamics that shape combat IRL are skewed within an MMO. Morale was always a paramount factor, and most battles didn't result in enormous losses. A formation that suffers 30% losses is generally considered out of the fight.

Not so in MMOs, where battles generally result in total elimination.

I think if one wants to prompt the emergence of formations, this has to be thought of at the lowere levels : I.E. ask yourself how this gives you an advantage, what kind of advantage and then implement mechanisms to reflect it.

The notion of space and army size is more relevant, IMHO, to operational/strategic considerations. The Zerg/organized unit debate deals is at a tactical level.

Posted May 20, 2005 6:09:01 AM | link

J says:

Nice article, but I disagree with your belief that large zergs discourage casual players and gameplay. Unlike organized and tightly-knit groups that depend on individual player discipline, zergs have a life of their own regardless of the specific players who make it up(except for the zerg leader). You, after all, defined a zerg as being made up of weak or generic units.

Casual players have little time nor desire and patience to form a well-organized group. They want to log in and get their gameplay in before going to do something else. Zergs, as in the old Albion Milegate standoffs of long past, were very much enjoyed by casual gamers who eventually left as '8v8' gradually took over.

Secondly, DAOC keep warfare is/was boring not because of the very nature of standoffs, but because of the game mechanics, line of sight issues, and bugs that made keep warfare suck for many classes.

Posted May 20, 2005 7:06:46 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

XP>"Combat rules in an MMO do not reflect the benefits of organization. Being inspired by RPGs, they are by and large, skirmish rules.

If you look at wargames, skirmish rules don't put much of a premium on coordination, cohesion and the like. You'll find that in rules that deal with larger engagements."

Interesting point. I read somewhere recently someone make a similar contrast between the Warhammer system and what might Warhammer as the MMORPG look like. In other words, how does one reconcile these two different "design styles."

Posted May 20, 2005 8:18:05 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

J>"I disagree with your belief that large zergs discourage casual players and gameplay. Unlike organized and tightly-knit groups that depend on individual player discipline, zergs have a life of their own regardless of the specific players who make it up(except for the zerg leader). You, after all, defined a zerg as being made up of weak or generic units."

I suspect a broad range of zergs encompassing a spectrum of player types and motivations.

As for one type of zerger - I used to be involved with guilds who'd try to get mass turn-outs for big zerging events and then coordinte with other guilds etc. I recall them as logistical nightmares by and large - tough on those who didn't have the afternoon free. Also tough on those who didn't play all the time to level etc.

Posted May 20, 2005 8:52:58 PM | link

XP says:

If you look at ancient or medieval wargame rules designed for mass warfare, you'll find mechanisms to reflect cohesion ("cohesion hits", "cohesion value") formations (unit is termed "formed", "unformed", there are various modifiers for depth of ranks).

The individual usually isn't represented per se. One figure stands for 5, 10, 20, 50 soldiers. Commanders are part of a command "stand".

Warhammer is a bit of a bastard game on that regard. It originated as a skirmish ruleset (it's descended from very basic rules enclosed within miniature boxed sets) and evolved toward a low-level tactical wargame.

Individual figures are indeed individual : A warhammer hero stands for one (super)man. "Army" battles just pit a few hundred soldiers against each other.

Skirmish rules generally emphasize individual combat value more than cohesive action.
Why would you bother with maintaining a rigid formation if it offers no advantage ? If only ganging up works, you get zergs.

Another thing that is usually overlooked in MMOs is the number of "artillery" (mage) units. Formations and tactics reflect the nature and limitations of the weapons used.

For example, Napoleonic armies used linear formations simply because muskets were terribly inaccurate when not carefully loaded and took a long time to reload.

Starting with the Civil War, formations began to open up because that factor disappeared.

Supposing medieval tactics would have been the same if one soldier in 5 or 6 was able to throw fireballs is a bit naïve. Quite probably, they would have been rather different.

Posted May 23, 2005 5:10:27 AM | link

Nathan Combs says:

XP>"Another thing that is usually overlooked in MMOs is the number of "artillery" (mage) units. Formations and tactics reflect the nature and limitations of the weapons used."

The standard group pattern (tanker-healer-mezzer-nuker) coupled with tacit support for pull-based group tactics (more or less) means that can support much more party diversity than would otherwise expect. Players demand that. Who wants to play in a world where 90% of players are tanks etc. This means short-circuiting design and AI in ways to allow this.

Posted May 23, 2005 8:07:58 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

Nathan> "Who wants to play in a world where 90% of players are tanks etc."

I mean this somewhat facetiously. Why couldn't one design a world around this: why not? It's just a different sort of game than the standard template that dominates most of design out there.

Posted May 23, 2005 8:11:54 PM | link

XP says:

Don't get me wrong : I don't mean that this group pattern is inherently "bad", or that MMOS should be tank-only.

What I wanted to stress is that assuming tactics developed in a melee-centric environment will work in an MMO is somewhat absurd.

Medieval fighters didn't have to face AOE long-range attacks except in some very limited situations.
As artillery began to become a deciding factor, close formations disappeared. Shock and melee became extremely secondary.

I'm a bit surprised that, somehow, MMOs seem to assume that tactics are independent of means used.. Or at least don't reflect on how the team structure they're based on will apply in large-scale warfare.

Posted May 24, 2005 4:33:32 AM | link

Jim Self says:

To XP:

Early western warfare consisted of more than heavy infantry and shock combat. Archer's book that Nathan mentioned above shows that as early as Alexander, armies were forced to be diverse in their light and heavy cavalry and infantry in order to compete. Having one of five soldiers throwing fireballs might be similar to having two in five firing arrows, depending on how you determine the effect of a fireball. You're definitely right about AOE though, there was essentially no such thing until exploding cannonballs and cannon grapeshot.

I don't think MMOGs are any more lacking on the strategic level than so-called RTS and TBS game are. Rarely does a strategy game include concerns of logistics, and that's probably because it starts to lose the game feeling and becomes hard work. To say that logistics wasn't a part of medieval warfare though, fireballs or not, would be pretty foolish.

I also don't think that MMOG warfare will ever begin to resemble the organized armies of Rome. Formations depend on discipline and close attention to orders, and players tend to lack that in sufficient amounts. I could picture a central authority giving general orders to specific groups, and those groups carrying them out, but not to the degree where formation warfare would be effective. IMHO, the extent of orders would be something like, "Move to their back and focus on healers and mages." Coordinating to the level of true formation work is probably just beyond the discipline of most players.

Posted May 25, 2005 6:30:00 PM | link

XP says:

To Jim Self

Certainly, Missile weapons did contribute, depending on the period, or rather the type of weapons and armor available.

I'm not completely convinced by the parallel between fireballs and arrows. Heavily armored infantry in formation could withstand arrows, at the price of movement and loss of cohesion.

Missile fire, for a long time, wasn't really a factor prompting loose formations, except for the use of skirmishers to cover shock troops.

On the other hand, AOE magic is usually indifferent to armor and a real killer. It's very close to modern artillery in its effects.

About RTS : Yeah there's not muich strategy to be found there. At best low-level tactics. Clicking fast counts for more than anything :)

I've got mixed feelings about discipline. On one hand, I agree with you that you cannot expect a high level of discipline, training and communication within an MMO.
Also, there's the fact that a lot of players want to be "heroes" in combat, not infantryman #2236.

But, on the other hand, there are systemic factors, like I tried to point out : There are no benefits to formations and a lot of drawbacks. I'm not sure that, if the rules were weighted otherwise, the players wouldn't follow suit.

I've played and refereed a lot of LARPS. Despite the fact that LARPS players are not really adicted to discipline, formations were generally present.

There are several factors at play, I think. Extreme mobility for the avatars, absence of collision detection and a very simplistic combat system (I strike, you strike) reduce the use of space to distance and facing.

IRL, you don't enter the sweep of an enemy fighter lightly. You also can't go through him/her and you don't sprint through a battlefield.

A line of shield users doesn't have the same defence as a single fighter too.

I still think that rules designed to promote some basic formation warfare would naturally prompt other tactics. Players find quite fast what's optimal and what is not.

Posted May 27, 2005 4:24:57 AM | link

XP says:

Interestingly, Age of Conan is planning to do just that : You can form up under the command of a general (losing some control on your character movements) to gain bonuses.

The example given is that of a formation of pikemen defeating a horse charge.

I don't know if it will work out and how, only time will tell.

Posted May 27, 2005 4:46:59 AM | link

Nathan Combs says:

XP>
"I still think that rules designed to promote some basic formation warfare would naturally prompt other tactics. Players find quite fast what's optimal and what is not. "

Absolutely agree - however my hunch is that there are two sticky pieces here (why its hard): a.) what turns out to be "optimal" to the players may not be the option intended, e.g. see (b.); b.) I used to play an MMP arena game (Tanarus, i mention it also here) whose ruleset enable a much richer range of tactical options than players ended up using. What options were actually used varied - specialized arena/game adaptations developed. What was important was that the players would enforce the more restricted ruleset (e.g. certain kinds of vehicle types or tactics or even weapons couldn't be used).

Posted May 27, 2005 5:38:34 AM | link

XP says:

I tend to think that if what the players consider optimal isn't what you wanted, you probably failed to design to that end.
I admit that it's hard to think in terms of end effects rather than in a top-down approach.

But too often, MMOs just seem designed by aggregating rules with little control on the resultant dynamic and the player's perception. DAoC, for one, is a prime example of uncontrolled resultant gameplay.

I doubt they intended to promote the style of play that revolved around "MG Farming". Yet, if you examine their system, it makes full sense..

Posted May 27, 2005 7:52:11 AM | link

Galrahn says:

I would disagree with this from a PvP game perspective, I think in order for any of this to be right you need a lot more context, and generally speaking all 3 would be wrong as basic conclusions.

A.) discourages casual play
B.) stresses other world design elements
C.) is unbalanced

A.
It is very common in PvP centric games that casual players band together to form a zerg out of necessity. The tactic is an adaptation to other issues related to skill level, numbers, equiptment shortages, or other elements that 'uberguilds' hold an advantage over casual players. In PvP circles, a zerg is often a casual players tactic of choice because the lack of time and effort casual players tend to put into the tactical aspects of PvP.

When a zerg is labeled to a large PvP guild, often the element overlooked by a smacktalking PvP group making the accusation is that supposed 'zerg' PvP guild is extreamly organized and often structured to fit more playstyles than typical PvP 'hardcore' style guilds, which allows the 'zerg' to outgrow other PvP guilds. Typical 'zergs' in PvP are not just one guild/clan though, they are the multiple groups representing a single team, which is why the typical definition runs in contrast to discouraging casual play.

B.
WoW is a bad example of B because WoW wasn't built for open PvP. Think PvP game. A good MMOG is designed to handle combat for thousands of players on the same battlefield, not the 30 or so no lag fighters UO could handle before it choked.

Last weekend I partipated in a castle siege in Lineage2 where my alliance actually tried to siege a zerg. We were overwhelmed and lost without making a real effect in their defense, but killed 10x our number over during the 2 hour siege period. The game is modern, so it had no trouble handing the 200+ on our side and 700+ on their side on the same battlefield. Modern PvP games are designed for zerg, if they aren't, then the game wasn't built for large populations since everyone is considered a PvPer in PvP centric games.

C.
Was us losing to a zerg tactic a sign of unbalance in the game? I don't think so, the vast majority of the population of our server turned out to protect that castle from us. How can a zerg be unbalancing when it is an extention of action by a large community of players. Ya they were disorganized, had no tactical plan, and tactically "zerg" describes exactly the tactic they deployed, but the most important element of the battle wasn't the tactical aspect of the fight from their perspective, it was strategical value holding that castle had for the zerg.

When the discussion is zerg, it typically is in the context of a tactical application in PvP, but often zerg tactics are the result of similar strategic ideals among large communities in PvP games.

Ironic I fight zergs often and don't particularly care for them, but then when the discussion is zerg I defend it. My friends would shoot me.

Posted May 27, 2005 3:23:16 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

Galrahn>... A.)

The critical feature underlying the difference seems to me is: "PvP for the sake of PvP" - the assumption here is then the zerg is a convenient vehicle by which to further an activity which most players want to engage and *can*. These sound also to be fairly impromptu (or at least predictable and frequent) activities - again given the nature of the world and expectations amongst the players. (note your comment, on Modern PvP games are designed for zerg, if they aren't, then the game wasn't built for large populations since everyone is considered a PvPer in PvP centric games.).

I would contrast this to worlds where there are other activities (competing casual players away) and/or which require organization to marshall resources (e.g. to get the numbers in place, etc.). I've been in many situations where simply getting critical mass together for a "zerg" was a huge time sink - discouraging those who had to log in an hour etc. The most extreme case here might be with the online "sim" games. I used to play air sims - and just getting the rest of your squadron online at the same time was a real bear.

Galrahn> The game is modern, so it had no trouble handing the 200+ on our side and 700+ on their side on the same battlefield.

Are these numbers really true?

Galrahn> C. Was us losing to a zerg tactic a sign of unbalance in the game? ...

For example, it is very hard to predict the outcome of two roughly even zergs head-to-head. The reason is because in a feedback system - small variations can easily become magnified having disproportionate impact. ..."A kingdom for a horse..." or more analytically - consider William Lanchester's work with combat models: slight force differences quickly unbalance a rough parity.

So what does a zerg do- insure overwhelming numbers... unbalancing.


Galrahn> Ya they were disorganized, had no tactical plan, and tactically "zerg" describes exactly the tactic they deployed, but the most important element of the battle wasn't the tactical aspect of the fight from their perspective, it was strategical value holding that castle had for the zerg.

Interesting. It would also suggest fairly straight-forward strategies that can be followed and measured by indviduals in a loosely knit zerg: "hold these two forts"... vs. "flank right, then center push"

Posted May 27, 2005 7:14:11 PM | link

Galrahn says:

Nathan,

Yes the numbers are true, the reality is it was a small siege in comparison to most, Lineage 2 is an amazing PvP game, in fact as far as pure organized PvP, probably the best system implimented in MMOGs today, which might explain the popularity in Asia where PvP with purpose is a popular montra. The game has other problems that can conceal that though, what I would label 'turn offs' to the North American gaming community.

The reason I know the numbers are true is because there is an alliance feature that allows you to count your side, after the siege the numbers from all teams is usually collected. People like to brag between servers when they have over 1k people at a siege, we fell short of the 1k mark last weekend on Sieghardt. By the way, LAG FREE! Can't beat that, and you probably can't believe it either until you experience it.

Zerg has different effects in different games. In a PvP game, zerg is the expected tactic against an unpopular aggressor. I have traditionally played the role of an unpopular aggressor in the games I have played in the past. In UO, my guild was considered the zerg because we retained players for years and years, and when you retain players over several years and add about 20 new players a year, eventually you have over a hundred players. In UO, 100 players in Felucca is a zerg, although the truth is it reflected our ability to retail players in the game, not a mass recruiting effort.

In Lineage 2, same concept (union to fight an unpopular aggressor), except Lineage 2 is a pure PvP game where in UO PvP was limited to a specific community on a specific facet. We have built up an alliance of 300 people or so, and while this would be a huge zerg in most games, it is a fairly average size alliance on a North American Lineage2 server because the entire population is considered a PvPer. So when you fight 3 or more other 'average' size alliances, you get outnumbered pretty quickly and the label zerg comes into play, mostly because the lack of organization that can exist in large battles when you have multiple teams playing a single side (using different voice channels for communication, etc).

I think Zerg should be considered a valid tactic in PvP games, because it is often a result of unions against a common foe. Sure in a casual game overwhelming weaker numbers zerg and can lead to the A, B, and C scenarios, but since PvP in those games is usually an afterthought anyway, true tactics were probably never calculated by the developer as an option either, so what makes zerg any different in those games.

Here is a true example of a zerg strategically organized tactic. 3 alliances vs 1 alliance, about 600+ vs 200+ people. Assume the 3 alliances are defending a castle. Usually the weakest alliance will stand back and stay outside the castle lawn, taking out targets that enter the 'siege' zone. The stronger two alliances will branch out and scout in units (groups) for the enemy, and once found they will rally groups in the area and do forward strikes. Their objective is to keep the attacker as far from the siege as possible.

If the attacker is able to outflank the scouts (approach via ocean or wipe out smaller parties to break through to the siege zone), the defender would pull back and continue massive rushes to beat the attacker out of the siege zone.

From an ingame perspective, this type of defense is considered a concept of defense, not a tactic. Tactics are usually used by the aggressor in sieges to flank or contain an enemy. The tactic in defense is basically zerg, with simplistic concepts organzing groups within the zerg for maximum effect.

Zerg is a tactic in strategic attack or strategic defense, the least thought out tactic for sure, but a tactic nonetheless. It is common, and I don't see how in open PvP that lack limits to numbers how you can prevent zerg, and to be honest, when PvP wins and losses effect global options within a world, I would say to prevent zerg would be a bad thing, because zerg is how popular opinions (from a community perspective) is enforced via PvP in those types of games.

I think where zerg becomes a problem is in games where PvP isn't designed to have consequences. In those types of games, zerg has no effect, it isn't the exercise of a popular opinion, it is simply a tactic of survival or success from a weaker teams perspective. However my arguement is, if PvP has no consequences, the PvP aspect of the game was poorly thought out to begin with, so as far as I am concerned the game deserves the negitive side effects a zerg can create.

Posted May 28, 2005 12:02:30 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Galrahn, thanks for that last example -- that really helps.

It did leave me sort of puzzled about a couple of things, however.

1. You describe the actions of defending the castle with words like "scout," "rally," and "outflank." To me, those sound like the exact opposite of zerging! If there's operational coordination of squads with differing capabilities and purposes, how is that zerging?

2. I think I understand zerging for attack, but how do you zerg for defense? Defense usually means defending a position... but how does zerging -- as a massive and uncoordinated rush of many similar weak units -- accomplish that?

I can imagine zerging for defense only in the sense of a delaying tactic to cover the retreat of more valuable forces. (The Soviet retreat to Stalingrad, for example.) But if you're just defending a static position, how does this apply?

Am I just being pedantic here? Or is "zerging" maybe not the right term to describe the actions in your example? Or am I not understanding something?

--Flatfingers

Posted May 28, 2005 5:07:46 PM | link

Galrahn says:

I personally have found that the 'zerg' tactic is more common in defense than in attack, pretty much everywhere except in Starcraft where the term came from.

The common zerg defense in MMOGs as far as I know is the T2A Island spawn in UO. Basically the entire trammal facet would rally enough people looking to do a champ spawn for skill/stat scrolls to zerg the beach, the water in front of the beach, and generally make it impossible for an attacker to attack the island champion.

A zerg defense is simply putting the 'zerg' between the attacker and the fixed objective, and constantly throwing the people in front of the attacker like you would throw women and children in front of a spear charge.

In Lineage 2 this is a common defense. Draw a line from a city to the castle being sieged. Draw numbers 1-10 along that line, 1 being the city, 10 being the castle. Now give everyone a number between 1-10 to let them know where to stand. Is this a tactical defense or is this strategic defense?

If the attacker reaches #8, numbers 1-7 are going to pull back. Is the pulling back of those people tactical, or is it strategical?

I would argue the actions may resemble other forms of strategy, but the tactical defense in use is zerg. If you tell 100 unorganized people who just got flanked to 'fall back and hit the enemy,' to me it is a real stretch to say that is the same as a 'tactical retreat.' In the end, zerg is what it is, a weaker large force against a stronger large force. Are there tactics within a zerg? I would say that during any fight you will see movements of forces that resemble tactics, but in general you can't call the disorganized movement of large numbers of troops in a zerg tactics, mostly because it is unorganized and reactionary in nature, not planned strategy.

My experience in PvP centric MMOGs reminds me that when a team or force uses real tactics against another team or force, it is like the definition porn or obsenity, you know it when you see it. Typically the effect of a well implimented tactic is so remarkable given the circumstances, there is little question the precision in which the events unfolded was planned, and the effect is typically visable for all to see.

I could probably go through 100s of storys of such tactics deployed in UO or L2 where a real impact was made in the outcome by the successful usage of tactics, and maybe I will when publishers start believing reading books about MMOG PvP is profitable.

Posted May 29, 2005 1:46:13 PM | link